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In one of her richest performances to date, Tilda Swinton shines in Eric Zonca's "Julia," playing a boozy, chain-smoking, amnesiac woman, who at 40 is a total mess. Is it too late for her to change?
"Julia" (not be confused with Fred Zinnemann's 1977 film of that title) world-premiered at the 2008 Berlin Film Fest, and a year later received a limited release by Magnolia.
It's hard to think of many films this year, which have offered such a strong female part, and it's harder to think of many recent roles in which Swinton herself (often cast in secondary parts) has dominated a feature from first scene to last. The greatest compliment I can pay Swinton is to suggest that it's impossible to think of "Julia" with another actress in the titular role.
French director Zonca first made an impression about a decade ago with the lovely feature, "The Dreamlife of Angels," which I saw in the Cannes Film Fest. Sharply observed, if structurally messy and way overlong (two and a half hours), "Julia" pays homage to (or is inspired by) Cassavetes' 1980 "Gloria," starring Gena Rowlands. As such, the film is effective as a rather realistic thriller with twists and turns, as noir melodrama, and above all, as a strong character study.
Swinton is perfectly cast as a middle-aged femme, who initially believes she that can fool everybody. An alcoholic, Julia is manipulative, unreliable, and compulsive liar, strung out beneath her still flamboyant exterior.  Between shots of vodka and one-night stands, Julia gets by on nickel-and-dime jobs.  Increasingly lonely, the only consideration she receives comes from her friend Mitch, who tries to help her.  But she shrugs him off, as her alcohol-induced confusion reinforces her sense that life has dealt her a losing hand and that she is not to blame for the mess she has made of it.
Glimpsing imminent perdition, and after a chance encounter with Elena, a Mexican woman, Julia convinces herself, as much in panic and despair as for financial gain, to commit a violent act. As the story unfolds, Julia's journey becomes a flight on a collision course.
Despite many flaws, Julia is instinctively bright, and not entirely devoid of self-awareness. She's smart enough to know that time is running out and that her life is rapidly crumbling.  Essentially, Julia is a woman driven to change by her actions. To that extent, she takes a crazy, violent decision in defiance of any human consideration, deluding herself that her salvation lies in money.
In a remarkably poignant, nonjudgmental way, Zonca follows his protagonist, phase by phase, as she embarks on a journey toward more acute self-consciousness and greater moral and social responsibility.  Zonca has said that his movie was inspired by "a photo by Helmut Newton of a flamboyant redhead driving through L.A. in a BMW," which motivated him "to confront this glamorous image with something more violent—the degeneration caused by alcohol, confinement, lies, losing yourself and polluting your relationship to others–the dehumanization of one's being."